Rexistrau: 11 May 2004
Llugar: Tampa, FLorida
|Publicao: Mie Avi 03, 2014 11:59 am Asuntu: Teatro - Centro Asturiano de Tampa
|Another article (front page banner), in today's Tampa Tribune
Group aims to return iconic Ybor theater to former glory
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff
Published: December 3, 2014 | Updated: December 3, 2014 at 10:00 AM
TAMPA — Keith Arsenault was 6 or 7 the first time he stepped inside the theater at Centro Asturiano, the Ybor City social club on Nebraska Avenue built by immigrants from Spain.
His mother — Anzia Arsenault, founder of the now-defunct Tampa Ballet — needed his help setting up for a performance.
Arsenault, now 63, remembers standing in the balcony and catching seat cushions tossed up to him.
And he remembers the stage's front curtain, covered with dozens of advertisements from local businesses.
“That shows you how popular this theater was,” Arsenault said. “Advertising on that curtain equaled a lot of eyes.”
The 1,000-seat theater was among the most popular in Florida, equivalent to the Straz Center today.
Those days are long gone. Only a handful of shows are staged there each year now. But Arsenault is seeking to make the Centro Asturiano Theatre a major player again in the local, national and even international arts scene.
Arsenault's company, International Arts & Entertainment Group, which builds sets, props and special effects for theater companies, is upgrading the Centro Asturiano Theatre by repairing electrical wiring, modernizing the lighting rig and installing a sound system for the first time ever.
He hopes to have renovations complete in time to book it for the theater season that begins in September.
In total, those upgrades will cost a few thousand dollars, Arsenault said.
The backstage area needs to be made larger, but the cost is too high for now.
Arsenault doesn't think that will turn shows away.
“The truth is there are many Broadway theaters with just as little space,” Arsenault said.
In the past, Centro Asturiano president Frank Menendez said, such a major renovation could have been funded partially through the advertisement space sold on the front curtain.
“The curtain had a captive audience,” Arsenault said. “It was what you looked at and read as you waited for the show to begin. People arrived an hour early, and the front curtain would not be raised until 15 minutes before the show.”
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Arsenault compared the curtain to commercials shown in movie theaters today. When top entertainers performed at Centro Asturiano and sold out the theater, it was an ad well worth the cost.
He was working in the theater two weeks ago when he spotted the billboard-like curtain bundled and hanging high above the stage. He decided to lower it so he could see it for the first time since he was a kid.
It was the first time anyone had lowered it in 14 years.
“I knew it existed, but it had been ages since anyone has seen it,” Menendez said. “I've been serving the club since 2000 and had never seen it.”
Rigged like an old sail, the curtain requires special knowledge to raise and lower properly.
Arsenault has the experience. He was once production director and lighting designer for the Nacional Ballet de Colombia in Bogota's Teatro Colón, built in the 1890s.
“I was in awe when I saw it,” Menendez said. “I think the only business advertised on it that still exists is Naviera.”
Founded in 1921, Naviera Coffee Mills is at 2012 Seventh Ave. in Ybor City.
Other businesses advertised include Mercedes Cafe, Frank Pardo Supermarket, Tropical Ice Cream, Victory Bakery, Empire Auto Services and Arthur Smith Music, where Arsenault purchased his first baby grand piano when he was 15.
“That curtain is a page out of history,” Menendez said. “There are so many places that people may remember. I think the curtain could be its own attraction.”
Lowering it for every show is too risky for its age, though.
“We don't want it to tear or fall,” Arsenault said. “It will be shown off on special occasions only. Eventually, maybe we can rig it so it can be used all the time. But we have a lot to do first to get ready for next September.”
Ybor City's social clubs provided immigrants with social services, including medical care, banking and burial, serving immigrants from a number of homelands. The clubs included Centro Asturiano for immigrants from Asturias, Spain; Centro Español for those from all over Spain; Marti-Maceo for people of Afro-Cuban descent; and the Italian Club, German Club and Cuban Club.
Each club also was known for excelling in a particular form of entertainment.
Centro Español, for example, had a movie theater that screened popular Spanish films and American Westerns.
The Cuban Club often welcomed big bands to its outdoor patio band shell.
And Centro Asturiano had what Arsenault considered the most lavish theater of all the social clubs.
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“It was where the top performers in the Western Hemisphere came,” Arsenault said. “All types of shows were held there — orchestra concerts, operas, comedies, musicals.”
The popularity of the venue had a lot to do with its location, he explained.
“Tampa was not a top destination, but Havana was,” Arsenault said. “The only way to get to Cuba in those days was by steamship from New York or Tampa. So the performers would leave from Tampa and perform while here.”
It was the only theater specializing in Spanish-speaking performances to be included in the Federal Theatre Project — a New Deal undertaking that funded live performances in the U.S. during the Great Depression.
Arsenault and Menendez surmise that the front curtain was designed in the late 1940s based on its advertisements.
With ads aimed at veterans, it must have been created after World War II, but with retail stores referencing radio sales it probably predated television.
The curtain could be even older, though. The ads are hand-painted and may have been updated every few years, Arsenault said.
As with all the social clubs, Centro Asturiano membership began to dwindle in the 1960s when the children and grandchildren of the founders turned to their workplaces for health benefits or left the area altogether.
Centro Asturiano, which once boasted over 6,000 members, now has 200, Menendez said.
Still, groups such as the Spanish Lyric Theatre and Tampa Ballet continued to use the venue through the 1970s.
But the companies later gravitated toward theaters with more modern amenities.
Arsenault is confident the Centro Asturiano Theater again will be relevant, largely because of its unique architecture, designed by M. Leo Elliott and B.C. Bonfoey. The same team was responsible for the Old Tampa City Hall, the Cuban Club, the Ritz Theater and the Tampa Yacht Club.
“You don't get an atmosphere like this anywhere else,” Arsenault said. “Going to the theater is an event and seeing a show at the Centro Asturiano adds to the excitement. It's just a great venue.”